Is an obsession with originality undermining our industry’s effectiveness?

I think I’m about to redefine sacrilege.  I think our industry is too concerned with originality.

The criticism most feared in our industry is ‘it’s been done before’.  Shouldn’t the criticism to fear be ‘it didn’t work’?  It should be, but it’s not, because we’re more concerned by our peer’s view of our work than we are about the effectiveness of our work.

And at the heart of this problem is the incredibly tight, arguably paranoid, way in which we define originality.

I imagine we can all agree that originality exists on a spectrum. At one end sits the genuinely new, the breakthrough, the revolutionary ‘where the hell did that come from?’ thinking. This is resoundingly good, and should rightly be celebrated, its progenitors lauded. At the other of the spectrum sits plagiarism, the knowing, dishonest, unimaginative theft of other’s work.  This is resoundingly bad, and should rightly be condemned, its perpetrators vilified.

But in between these two poles should potentially sit a huge territory of evolving, sharing, mutating ideas that grow and develop, influenced and inspired by thinking that has gone before.

My feeling is that our industry is so concerned with being original that we lock ourselves (or more importantly, our clients) out of that significant area of potential value.  We’re so worried about being tainted by unoriginality that we abandon anything that might possibly resemble something that’s been done before. So rather than representing an extreme on the spectrum, we’ve defined unoriginality so broadly that it actually represents the bulk of the spectrum. And rather than a huge area of potential ideas that might evolve and develop and take on new life when applied in different ways, we have only two types of ideas – original and worthy or unoriginal and worthless.  We’ve become originality fundamentalists.

The real problem is that that our view of the merit of an idea is reducing our client’s chances of success, because the result of our obsession with originality is a reluctance to learn.  We don’t look at what’s been done before effectively as a lesson in what we should do more of. We look at what’s been done before to see what we should avoid doing at all costs. Because once an idea’s been used it no longer has value – to us. It’s been done, and therefore we must start again, conceiving something original that doesn’t resemble what went before (irrespective of whether what went before might well have worked brilliantly).

If I were a client, I think I’d be alarmed by this.  I certainly wouldn’t be interested in paying an agency to rehash someone else’s ideas, ripping them off while charging me. But I would want to believe that my agency went to school on what worked, and looked to apply that learning and those techniques to the work they produced for me.  I’d like to think that an agency would see the merit in looking at an idea that worked, and understanding how that might be evolved or reconfigured in such a way that it could be effective for me.

I’d want my lawyer to actively use precedent to guide the development of a legal defence, such that if something had worked extremely well in a similar situation that they’d learn from that, not deliberately develop a contrasting argument because ‘it’s been done’.

I’d want an architect who placed great store in design solutions that had been effective in similar situations, focusing on the effectiveness for its purpose of the building or space created, not actively avoiding an element because they’d ‘seen it before’.

I’d want my agency to think like that too.  But most agencies don’t, because they fear ‘it’s been done’ more than they fear ‘it didn’t work’, and worry more about their peer’s judgement than their client’s success.

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Is an obsession with originality undermining our industry’s effectiveness?

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